Wednesday, March 8, 2017

From Potsdam to the Cold War: Big Three Diplomacy 1945-1947

Building on earlier works addressing the Potsdam and Yalta conferences, James Gormly examines post-war attempts to build a lasting and stable peace by focusing on activities during the various summits leading up to the Paris Peace Conference in 1947. Gormly asserts that the Big Three: Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union worked feverishly in order to create a good peace along the lines of that established at Vienna following the Napoleonic wars, which prevented warfare in Europe until 1914. The desire to lay the foundations of a lasting peace were based on the belief that World War II was the result of the treaties signed to end World War I. Unfortunately, Gormly believes, the good will of the war-time alliance gave way to the rivalry and tensions that led to the Cold War by 1947; because of the horrors of the war the Big Three worked to lay the ground rules for international behavior which Gormly believes could take the form of a multinational system embodied by the failed League of Nations, a spheres-of-influence system like that of the 19th century, or a bi-polar system dominated by two Great Powers.

 After stating that President Truman and his advisors had determined that working with the Soviet Union to preserve peace would be extremely difficult, Gormly begins his discussion the summits of 1945-1947 by examining the events and circumstances of the end of World War II. Although he mentions the casualties and damage resulting from the war, and compares its impact on each of the Big Three, Gormly focuses on the types of international system likely to develop in the aftermath. Considering that the casualties of war would have such a significant impact on Soviet requests for post-war territorial and governmental concessions from their neighbors in Eastern Europe, more specific information on damage and casualties would further illuminate the situation. A brief example of the desperate defense of Stalingrad to complement the stark figures of 20-25 million Russian deaths, for instance would go a long way to explaining the apparently irrational Stalinist demands for changes in German and Polish borders and creation of Soviet dominated puppet governments in the east.

According to Gormly, most observers believed that the most likely post-war system to emerge would be one in which an international organization such as the United Nations would exist, but have little power and function only to the extent that Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and United States, potentially in conjunction with China and France, allowed it to. The other options were an international organization approaching a true world government, or a true bi-polar arrangement between the United States and Soviet Union. History has shown that the UN had little power when opposed by either the Soviet Union or the United States, and in many ways turned into a debating society, that nevertheless was able to work to alleviate some of the suffering in impoverished areas.

Before dealing with the summits themselves, Gormly provides a brief analysis of the goals and psychology of the main players, but curiously does not discuss Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet “commissar” for foreign affairs and main Soviet negotiator for the 1945-1947 summits and peace conferences while devoting considerable space to James Byrnes, Truman’s Secretary of State. The discrepancy is a significant issue, as Molotov’s negotiating style and philosophies are easily as important as those espoused by Byrnes. Although the stances adopted by Molotov undoubtedly had the approval of Stalin, his behavior and rigid stances allowing few concessions to Great Britain and the United States certainly added to the tension of the summits, just as Byrnes’ initial desire to promote peaceful co-existence led him to grant many concessions to Molotov. Similarly, Gormly does not focus on the mind-set of the primary British negotiator Ernest Bevin. Bevin’s importance lay in his assumption of negotiations after Churchill’s ouster as Prime Minister of Great Britain. His views, including that the United Nations was little more than an “international talk-shop,” dramatically increased tensions during the summits by his persistent opposition to Molotov’s demands for territorial gains in the Mediterranean and Africa. Bevin’s determination is a stark contrast to the conciliatory stance taken by the American Byrnes.

 The Potsdam Conference, which began 17 July 1945, was presided over by President Truman at the suggestion of Stalin. Both Truman and Stalin came armed with agenda topics, while Churchill had none prepared, which implies that he either expected a slower pace than Truman and Stalin desired or preferred to play the role of bridge-builder between the other two powers. The agenda topics presented by Truman and Stalin were decidedly different. Truman’s included establishing the council of foreign ministers, principles of governance for the Allied Control Council, the Declaration on Liberated Europe, and Italian membership in the League of Nations. Stalin brought a longer list of topics for discussion: division of German maritime assets, reparations from Germany and Italy, trusteeships of colonial territories, relations with lesser powers, Franco’s regime in Spain, and the status of Tangiers, Syria, Lebanon, and Poland. The differences in the lists of agenda topics is indicative of the different goals and methods of the different powers, showing that Truman was more interested in stability and international cooperation, while Stalin was primarily concerned with expanding Soviet influence and his own security concerns.

Potsdam set the stage for later conferences in several ways. First, it witnessed the creation of the Council of Foreign Ministers, which consisted of the chief diplomats from each of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. This body was designed to handle the nuts and bolts negotiations between the powers, which Gormly states was an attempt to reduce the likelihood of drawn out and acrimonious negotiations like those at Versailles after World War I. Whether the council of foreign ministers reduced tensions is a dubious proposition considering that the summits leading to the peace conference laid the ground work for the Cold War. It did however foster the illusion that Stalin, Truman, and Attlee (British Prime Minister after Churchill) got along well and generally agreed on things. This, of course left the heavy lifting to Molotov, Byrnes, and Bevin.

The rest of the text examines the remaining summits leading up to the Paris Peace Conference in minuscule detail, including the details of the agreements reached at each, the controversies arising from them, and the personalities involved. The agreements are well-documented, with no party truly receiving everything it wanted, especially Britain. The Soviets successfully claimed most of Eastern Europe as their sphere of influence after much argument from the British. Molotov ultimately secured dominion over a Poland with borders moved west to the Oder, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. Hungary’s borders were pushed west toward Trieste at Italian expense, and the Soviets also received reparations of $100 million from Italy. The question of Germany at its allies proved difficult for all four of the occupying powers to resolve.

Although the issue of Germany seemed resolved at the end of the Yalta Conference with each of the four European allies receiving a zone to control, reparations, demilitarization, and potential German governments became a source of strain among the powers. Russia and France both objected to a reconstituted Germany, particularly France, which wanted the Ruhr, Rhineland, and the Saar under its political control. Russia also preferred that Germany be kept divided and weak both politically and economically, but also wanted $20 billion in war reparations. Both of these issues were difficult political problems. Byrnes and Bevin worked to address them by suggesting that the Soviets receive their reparations from the factories and output of the Eastern Zone, which the Soviets had already begun despoiling. Given that the Allies estimated that t 50% of Germany’s wealth existed in the East, this had the advantage of providing the Soviets with their reparation demands while ensuring that the United States would not be provided the funds to pay reparations as had occurred after World War I. Byrnes also insisted that the $20 billion figures had only be agreed to at Yalta as a starting point. Molotov and Stalin ultimately agreed to accept a percentage figure of 25% of German industrial output, of which 20% could come from the western zones. However, of only part of the 20% would be a “free grant,” the rest being purchased with food and coal from the east.

While Gormly shows the discussions surrounding Germany as difficult and causing tensions to develop, they are nothing compared to his discussions of the negotiations regarding the peace treaties of Italy and the Axis satellites. Italy, with its Northern African colonies proved to be a sore point for all of the Allies. Italy sticks out among the other items in From Potsdam to the Cold War due to complexity of the issues and the bitterness with which they were debated. The issue of diplomatic recognition and admission to the UN started the argument. When the United States and Great Britain requested that Italy be immediately admitted to the UN, Stalin flatly refused. The basis for the Soviet refusal on Italy was that Stalin recognized no difference between Italy and Poland, Finland, Romania, and Bulgaria. He believed that if Italy was admitted, all of the former Axis satellites should be admitted equally. Churchill and Truman disputed Stalin’s statement that Italy was no more democratic than the other former Nazi allies, with Churchill stating that while Italy was about to have free elections the others were firmly under the thumb of the Soviets, with no freedom of the press, no free elections, and dissent quashed. Gormly presents this as the opening gambit in the game for Italy and her possessions. The British and Americans strive to prevent any Soviet influence from gaining hold in Italy, her possessions, or the Mediterranean.

According to Gormly, these goals are the reason for the hard line taken by the United States and Great Britain against Russia here. There were three main sticking points: the Italian border with Yugoslavia, reparations, and the colonies. Each issue increased tensions. The colonies were a special interest, with the Soviets and British both attempting to gain parts of Libya as a sole trusteeship. Bevin wanted the territory to replace Royal Navy bases in the Eastern Mediterranean, while the Soviets were looking to expand their influence, which Gormly claims as the primary motivator during many of the conferences. The French supported a continued Italian trusteeship, perhaps in order to keep the power of other powers in check, while the Americans advocated an international trusteeship of the Italian colonies. Throughout the summits the Soviets continued to push for recognition of the Balkan states, while the United States insisted on recognition for Italy. Each time the British and Americans refused to recognize Bulgaria and Romania, the Soviet renewed efforts to gain Italian colonies in North Africa. Even before discussions of borders and reparations, the talks devolved into what Gormly described as a brawl, or a “war of words”. Reparations again divided the Allies, with France and the Soviet Union demanding reparation from Italy in the amount of $600 million. The United States had already poured $500 million into Italy, and with the British considered even $300 million to be too great an amount.  The issue stymied the Council of Foreign Ministers until months of wrangling had elapsed, with Molotov and Bevin engaging into a “verbal duel.” Suddenly, a breakthrough occurred during the summer of 1946, before the Paris Peace Conference, when Molotov offered to Byrnes that in exchange for reparations of $100 million from Italy, he would no longer push Yugoslav claims to Trieste. Byrnes then offered that the United States would concede that the reparation could come from current Italian production. At a single stroke both issues were settled. This signaled the final breakthrough for the Big Three, as Byrnes also agreed to sign the treaties for the Soviet-dominated states as well.

 Gormly continues to enumerate the events of the Paris Peace Conference and the beginning of the Cold War embodied Averrell Harriman’s assertion that the Soviet Union had declared psychological war on the United States, and that as a war of opposing ideologies it was a war to the death. Harriman and other saw the power structure of the world changing from a cooperative alliance toward a bi-polar model dominated by two hostile powers. Tensions continued to rise between the West and the Soviets at the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in New York during sessions to adopt peace treaties for Italy, Hungary, Romania, Finland and Bulgaria. Molotov accused Byrnes of violating past agreements when Byrnes suggested that Yugoslavia not receive reparations from Italy until it had signed the Italian treaty. The stalemate on treaties was finally broken when Byrnes suggested that the conference be ended and an announcement made that the sides could not reach an agreement. Suddenly, Molotov became motivated to solidify the agreements and the five treaties were completed by December 5th 1946.

In From Potsdam to the Cold War Gormly charts a radically different course that Gaddis’ We Now Know, which lays the blame for the beginning of the Cold War firmly on Stalin’s paranoiac shoulders. Gormly, on the other hand focuses on the personalities of the Foreign Ministers: Molotov, Byrnes, and Bevin. This difference is crucial, as it changes the level at which the diplomatic tension occurs, and raises the question of whether the conflict came from Stalin, Churchill, and Truman or from the goals of lesser ministers. Gormly is only able to address the issue effectively from the side of the United State’s Byrnes, who stiffened his method of negotiation with Molotov after being criticized for being too accommodating of Soviet demands. Gormly is able to make an analysis of Byrnes’ mental state because he had access American interviews, diaries, and government documents. Unfortunately, due to the time period in which Gormly is writing, he does not have access to as much documentation from the other side of the negotiations, meaning that he has to rely on official transcripts and the accounts of Western diplomats of Soviet actions and demands at the conferences. At this level, Gormly’s work suffers in comparison to Gaddis’ We Now Know, but such criticism may not be fair: Gaddis had access to Soviet and Chinese archives not open to Americans in the late 1980's when Gormly was writing. Strangely, Gormly does not attempt to evaluate the state of mind of British officials like Bevin, when it is most likely that he could have gained access to British documents and memoirs. The documents chosen require that Gormly focus primarily on the American perception of events.

Stylistically, the information in From Potsdam to the Cold War feels as if it is all jumbled together with little organization other than chronologically. The text is broken in to time-bound sections focused on the summits leading to the Paris Peace Conference, and there is nothing inherently wrong in this method. Indeed, it lays out events as they happened, which may be critical in understanding the organic changes in Big Three attitudes toward one another. This perception may be enhanced by reading the work entirely in electronic format, the more traditional paper-bound format may be easier to digest.

 Positively, Gormly leads the reader through all of the minute details of the summits starting at Yalta and Potsdam through the finalization of peace treaties for Germany and her allies and the beginnings of the policy of containment and the Marshall Plan for the economic recovery of Europe. Despite getting the story primarily from the American perspective, the change from the cooperation of the war effort to the competition of the post-war era is well presented. It also shows that cooperation developed in spite of the wishes of war-time leaders. Gormly makes the case that Roosevelt’s desire for continued amicable relations gave way to Truman’s more hard-headed approach, and that as the talks wore on and each party focused on its own narrow needs. Gormly makes particular use of the issue of Italian colonies in North Africa to illustrate this new conflict, with both Great Britain and the Soviets pushing for trusteeships to further their own interests.

Gormly’s focus also graphically illustrates the manner in which the Soviets were able to assert domination over Eastern Europe both by virtue of physical conquest and stubbornness at the negotiation table. The fact that the Red Army occupied Eastern Europe enhanced Soviet demands that they be allowed to create institutions friendly to them. The only option for the British and Americans would be to start a new war to push the Soviets out. Although Gormly briefly mentions Russia (and French) security concerns after multiple German invasions, he seems to see it more as a negotiation tactic than a real concern, which puts him at odds with Gaddis. Despite the issues of the one-sidedness in his perspective, Gormly provides a useful look at the start of the Cold War from the perspective of some of the participants, and explores the details of the conflicts that launched a new type of conflict, which dominated world events for the next fifty years.

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